In 2004 I had the privilege of studying Italian while living in Assisi. The town has been unmistakably marked by its most famous son, St. Francis. Most people only know that St. Francis loved the animals. He's often seen as an environmentalist or some kind of medieval hippie. I was intrigued by the legend of the man and wanted to come to appreciate the real St. Francis. The deeper you look, the more he amazes you.
Francis was actually named John. His mother was French and that seems to have given him his nickname: "Frenchman" (Francesco in Italian). He lived during the late middle ages when trade and commerce started to create a middle class of wealthy merchants. There was money to be made and his father was good at making it. Francis appears to have been a spoiled rich kid, known for spending money and having a good time. After some misadventures he began to take his faith more seriously. He fell crazy in love with a man named Jesus. Francis read the Bible and believed what he read. He sold everything, gave it to the poor, and followed Jesus. Francis developed a deep love for poverty and a profound belief that God would take care of him. He survived on begging as he went around telling people the good news that they didn't need to seek power, wealth, or success: the love of Jesus was enough.
Once you get this very simple point, the life of St. Francis starts to make a whole lot more sense. Why did Francis choose poverty? His possessions were getting in the way of following Jesus. Why did Francis kiss a leper? Out of love for Jesus. Why did Francis love animals and the environment? It reminded him of the God he loved. Towards the end of his life Francis had a vision and received the Stigmata (the wounds of Christ in his hands, feet, and side). He was unable to walk because the wounds caused him so much pain. Even his own body had begun to reassemble the Christ that he loved so much.
One day browsing through book stores in Assisi I stumbled on an Italian version of the famous Prayer of St. Francis. I bought a little print on velum and I have prayed it every day since then. It sums up the Gospel in a few simple but profound lines. Here is a scan of the prayer, followed by my own translation of the Italian:
Oh! Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me bring Love Where there is offense, may I bring Pardon Where there is discord, may I bring Union Where there is doubt, may I bring Faith Where there is error, may I bring Truth Where there is hopelessness, may I bring Hope Where there is sadness, may I bring Joy Where there is darkness, may I bring the Light
Oh! Master, let me not so much seek: To be consoled, as to console To be understood, as to understand To be loved, as to love.
Since, so it is: Giving, that one receives; Pardoning, that one is pardoned; Dying, that one rises to Life Eternal.
A Few Brief Thoughts
First of all, we notice the emotion in the prayer. Twice it uses the expression "Oh!" when referring to God. Even the very thought of God excites Francis. Second, notice that he is not asking for "world peace." Rather, he is asking to be an instrument of God's peace. This reminds me of a little note I taped to my computer, "Peace is not the absence of problems; it is the presence of God."
Francis wants to bring this peace into a world experiencing hatred, hurt, discord, doubt, error, hopelessness, sadness, and darkness. Notice that the things he brings are all capitalized. In other words, these are proper nouns used to refer to Jesus himself. Francis wants to bring Jesus into the world around him, and the presence of Jesus is the source of all Love, Pardon, Union, Faith, Truth, Hope, Joy, and Light.
The second half is both sobering and liberating. Francis surrenders his own desire to be consoled, understood, and loved. He realizes that Jesus gave more than he received, and Francis wants to be like Jesus. But he is not afraid, because he knows that in giving he will receive. This part is a simple and poignant summary of the whole Gospel. We must give, pardon, and die, because this is the surest path to receive, be pardoned, and live forever.
Something in this prayer resonated with me. I have prayed it pretty much every day of my life for the past 10 years, to the point that I can now recite the Italian from memory. In a very real way, my life has reflected this prayer. I have brought a lot of pardon, consolation and understanding, perhaps more than I have received. But that is OK. I have begun to catch a glimpse of the depths of the riches of the love of Jesus Christ. I do not yet fully accept that the love of Jesus is really all I need. However, I can begin to understand a little bit the immense joy and freedom that Francis experienced when he began to live in that love every day.
Can you imagine what would happen if someone today in America, the richest nation on earth, were to follow the example of St. Francis and give away everything for love of Jesus? "Mom, here's my car keys, my credit cards, and my license. You can give away the furniture in my room, close my bank accounts, and please give the money to the poor. I'm in love with Jesus and he's calling me to let go of everything." That was St. Francis. But he got so much more in return. And so it is:
Giving, that one receives; Pardoning, that one is pardoned; Dying, that one rises to Life Eternal.